Q&A: tips from Oakland community group on renting

By Alexa Bakalarski / Assistant News Editor

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Between studying for classes, applying for internships, participating in clubs and finding time for exercise, many Pitt students have another question on their minds: where to live?

If students are planning to live off campus, the race to get the best house starts early, and the time crunch can mean taking short cuts when reading through a lease or quickly signing a security deposit check. After the rush of securing a place and moving in, students still have to maintain a relationship with their landlord and retain the upkeep of their house. The Pitt News talked to Rebekkah Ranallo, the communications manager for Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, for tips to keep in mind while living off campus in Oakland.

TPN: What’s your best advice for students living off campus at Pitt?

Rebekkah Ranallo: To make sure they ask the landlord lots of questions, make sure they read all the fine print in a lease before signing and … don’t think they have to settle for poor housing. There are lots of good options. There are a lot of students who will take something that’s not been properly maintained or dirty — has tons of problems — because they think they don’t have other options, but there’s lots of good options and they should not compromise.

TPN: What sort of questions should they ask their landlord?

RR: Clarify who’s responsible for basic upkeep and maintenance, like snow removal. A lot of students don’t realize that it’s written in their lease [that] they’re responsible for removing snow and pouring salt during the winter … Making sure they understand how the security deposit works. Clarifying that they are to receive documentation within 30 days of moving out about the security deposit, if any of it is being withheld for any reason, why it’s being withheld. A lot of students end up losing their security deposits because they don’t realize their rights about that

We always harp on making sure people know that there is a city ordinance that mandates no more than three unrelated people living in one unit, and a lot of landlords will be dishonest about that and say, ‘Oh, you know, you can have five or six people in this house.’ That’s not true We see a lot of cases where the landlord tries to say that the dining room — or even the living room, I’ve seen — is a bedroom because they make more money by cramming more people into it.

A really big one is knowing when and where they can store trash and recycling, what days to take it out. If they live in a building, a lot of landlords the larger apartment buildings pay their own private trash waste management companies to come haul the trash away, and a lot of students who live in those buildings don’t recycle because there’s no clear space where the recycling goes We try to encourage landlords who also have these bigger buildings to make sure they provide recycling receptacles.

Parking is a big one. Ask a landlord if there’s any parking that’s provided — off-street parking. If there’s not, make sure they understand how to get a parking permit from the city. I always recommend to not even bring your car for students who are living off campus in Oakland because it’s just so hard to find a spot to park the car and we have such good transit options here.

TPN: As a student renting in Oakland, what can you do if you have a problem with your neighbors?

RR: We always encourage just trying to have a basic, neighborly conversation first. A lot of misunderstandings can get cleared up by just knocking on someone’s door. You could prevent a lot of misunderstandings by, on day one when you move in, just knocking on your neighbor’s door and introducing yourself.

I’m sure you know about the string of burglaries going around the neighborhood? Knowing your neighbors in those scenarios is so important because you can help look out for one another and say, ‘Oh, over Thanksgiving break while you’re gone, I’ll keep an eye on your house and if I see anyone lurking, I’ll call the police.’ And then when a problem does arrive, we know some folks in our neighborhood who have had success by going next door and saying, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know, it’s my roommate’s birthday. We’re going to have a small party tonight. We want to keep it respectful, but if the noise gets out of hand or something bothers you, here’s my number. Please give me a call before you call the police.’

TPN: What could a student renting in Oakland do if a neighbor has a problem with them?

RR: I would hope they would discontinue the disruptive behavior, or the littering, or whatever is being complained about Yeah, basically, just remember that you live in a neighborhood where families with children and senior citizens live just like you would treat your neighborhood and your parents’ house, that’s how we want you to treat this neighborhood.

TPN: What do you do if you feel your landlord is not treating you properly as a renter?

RR: I should’ve said this from the get-go, from your first question, but students need to make sure that they’re keeping really careful documentation of all correspondents with landlords about problems. So first off, as soon as you move into a house, document any issues right away. So you get into your house on move-in day and you see a light switch is broken or there’s a hole in the wall or something like that — take a picture of it right away and send it in writing to your landlord so that you have written documentation that shows it wasn’t something you caused, and that you have asked the landlord to fix it, which is legally required to do in a lease.

When you get into these scenarios where landlords don’t respond to complaints, there’s help you can get from local enforcement. So we tell everyone to send all issues through the city of Pittsburgh’s 311 center. So you can do that in a variety of ways: you can tweet at 311, you can call 311 or you can submit a 311 form online. And that can be about any building related issue: it can be about mold, it can be about holes in the roof, it can be about weeds, debris, broken sidewalks — you name it, you can turn an issue into 311.

TPN: Are there any questions renters should ask before they move out?

RR: We’ve kind of already said a couple, but security deposit — make sure you give your landlord your forwarding address so they can send you a letter that explains what they’re doing with the security deposit. Ideally, you get your whole deposit back, but if you broke something or there’s some maintenance that needs to be taken care of, the landlord is required to send within 30 days a document that details why they took your deposit and how much of your deposit they took to fix it ––  what they used it for, basically. They can’t just keep the money and not tell you, is what I’m trying to say.

And then just — going back to what your lease says before you move out. Some leases say that the tenants are required to get the carpets professionally cleaned before they move out. Little things like that, you just want to make sure that you keep a copy of your lease, readily accessible, and you know what you agreed to when you signed up to live there.

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